Nouvel Observateur - (France) 10-16 May, 2001

"Bernard Frank's Column"

"Hard to spell" -

1. The Gang of Three


Ruth Valentini pointed out to Marcel Reich-Ranicki (My Life, Grasset) that he said very little about French literature and French writers on his famous television program, "The Literary Quartet". To this he replied quite brusquely that he didn't wish to express himself about French literature. He said he was not a regular reader of contemporary French literature. He was fond of our classics, of course, and by classics he meant Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert. On the other hand, he did not like either Voltaire or Diderot. But he had read a lot of Maupassant and Marcel Proust. And as for what is called le nouveau roman, the only one he appreciates is Michel Butor; they must have met in Switzerland or Germany between two conferences, two planes, two trains. He likes Nathalie Sarraute much less.

It is curious that anyone as cultivated as Reich-Ranicki prefers Butor to Sarraute. Generally it is the opposite. I mean, one would have expected him to prefer Sarraute, seemingly more readable and yet published in Pléiade. "And Claude Simon not at all," he adds. Yes, he does not like Claude Simon at all. That's how it is. It's the same with Houellebecq, whom he talked about on his famous television program. You can't have everything, the Nobel and the favour of Reich-Ranicki. And not a word about Robbe-Grillet. Ordinarily when one talks about the nouveau roman, one always says a word or two about Robbe-Grillet, it is a tradition. After all he was the founder of it, and the most fun.

There are four or five of them, I couldn't name all of them, who are experts in literature. Doctors generally. Doctors in something. Attached to great faculties. The kind of readers they don't make any more. The kind of readers one would like to be oneself. World-famous. There is George Steiner. There is Reich-Ranicki. And in addition, recently translated in France, at last, there is Stephen Vizinczey. As Epoca said, it is a name "difficult to spell and to pronounce, but it is the worth taking the trouble to learn".

Let us take the trouble. Vizinczey is a Hungarian who fought against Soviet troops at the end of 1956 when he was, it seems, a very young man, a poet and playwright. He had to flee to the West. And he learned English, of which he knew only fifty words, to perfection. Anthony Burgess said of him that he was "one of those writers who can teach the English how to write English". Like Conrad and Nabokov. That is where the fate of France was duped. We couldn't keep them. And of course it wasn't easy, after 1940, to detain refugees. The Vichy government didn't especially want them, and when it did detain them, it was to put them in camps. Let us not be too upset if we couldn't keep Conrad; in 2001, you can't say we lack refugees.

II. - It would be too good to be true

You can open Vérité.s et mensonges en littérature (Editions du Rocher) not quite at random, but almost. And it will be really bad luck if you do not find this passage, which will make you want to read the whole thing. "Thousands of novels are published every year, and these require a growing number of reviewers, which means a lowering of standards in all fields. Consequently most published novels are written by people who cannot write and most reviews are written by people who cannot read... Great works are constantly allowed to go out of print to make room for new rubbish. Balzac's literary essays, which belong among the most profound pages of literary criticism ever written, have been out of print for decades [Stephen Vizinczey is talking here about bookshops in Canada and the United States], while academic charlatans like Jacques Derrida publish a steady stream of books full of worthless theories and deliberately incomprehensible jargon which clutter the desks of editors, the shelves of bookshops and the brains of the students who have to read them."

You can see why Stephen Vizinczey has not always been appreciated by the big papers and the big critics of New York and why he has found sound judgment in a few exceptional provincial papers. In 1968 when he attacked, for example, William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, which he judged to be in fact a racist novel, he could almost say what he thought of this false masterpiece in the Times of London. But in his review he had the misfortune to bring his New York colleagues to the fore and quote extensively from their reviews. Thus Edmond Fuller of the Wall Street Journal:
"William Styron has written the true American tragedy... There can be no doubt, now, that he is the foremost writer of his generation in American fiction." As Vizinczey points out, "The critics who praised the novel have the reputation of being the best judges of books in America. When they speak with one voice about a book, libraries order a couple of hundred thousand copies. To question their judgment was to challenge their power to generate multi-million-dollar sales."

Later, Vizinczey was quite surprised that not a line appeared about his book The Rules of Chaos, in which his essay on Styron was included. It would be too good to be true if you could be right, could make fun of those who have lacked judgment, and then be applauded by them as well. You have to know how to wait. And even wait for nothing. "I will be read in 1880 or 1935," said our beloved Stendhal. But that is Paradise. Most of the time, you are never read. You have to know how to be content most often with the good opinion you yourself have of your judgments and writings.

by Bernard Frank